Senator John Heinz

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The Heinz Awards

1996

Herbert Needleman

Dr. Herbert Needleman receives the Heinz Award in the Environment for his extraordinary contributions to the understanding and prevention of childhood lead poisoning.

A pediatrician and child psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Dr. Needleman is distinguished as a researcher who, having determined the developmental implications of excessive exposure to lead, has worked tirelessly and at great personal cost to force governments and industry to confront the implications of his findings. While this has made him the target of frequent attacks, he has fought off his critics with courage, tenacity and dignity. Dr. Needleman continues his work today, despite having already played a key role in one of the greatest environmental health gains of modern times - a five-fold reduction in the prevalence of lead poisoning in American children.

In the 1970s, Dr. Herbert Needleman conducted a study while at the Harvard Medical School that provided the first clear evidence that lead, even at very low levels, could affect a child's IQ. And, in a series of follow-up studies, he determined that lead poisoning had long-term implications for a child's attentiveness, behavior, and school success.

Despite the significance of his findings, Dr. Needleman never assumed that his studies spoke for themselves, or that the job of interpreting them for policy makers and the general public belonged to someone else. Having identified a preventable affliction harming millions of children, he set about the process of educating everyone - from parents to government advisory committees - on the dangers of childhood lead poisoning. After extensive scientific review, his findings spurred the Centers for Disease Control to issue guidelines for the diagnosis and management of lead poisoning in children.

Dr. Needleman's work was instrumental in the decisions made by the Environmental Protection Agency to mandate the removal of lead from gasoline and by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban lead from interior paints. Additionally, Dr. Needleman's studies prompted the Department of Housing and Urban Development to remove lead from thousands of housing units across the country. The results, in public health terms, have been dramatic, with average blood lead levels in this country dropping an estimated 78 percent from 1976 to 1991.

It is not surprising that Dr. Needleman's work made him a frequent target of criticism by the lead industry, or that he was once forced to defend himself against charges of scientific fraud and misconduct. Not only was he exonerated, but he fought for and won the right for those accused of such charges to an open hearing with legal representation - a right that has benefited the entire scientific community.

Dr. Needleman is a superb medical educator and writer who remains committed to the cause of eradicating pediatric lead poisoning. The founder of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, an education and advocacy organization, he continues to work today on one of the most difficult issues in environmental health - reducing the hazards of lead-based paint in the homes of those living in the inner city.

Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.


UPDATES SINCE RECEIVING THE HEINZ AWARD

February 2006 - Needleman receives the 2006 Distinguished Investigator Award from the Neurotoxicology Specialty Section of the Society of Toxicology. The award goes to Needleman for "his research showing that even low-level exposure to lead can affect children's I.Q. and behavior, and for his efforts to eliminate lead products from the environment." - University Medical Center of Pittsburgh

January 2004 - Needleman wins the Prince Mahidol Award for 2003 in the field of public health. This prestigious honor is generally bestowed upon people and organizations "which have demonstrated outstanding and exemplary contributions to the advancement of medical, public health and human services throughout the world." Needleman receives it for his groundbreaking research into lead poisoning and its prevention. - Thai Press Report

July 2004 - Needleman is honored with the Rachel Carson Award for Integrity in Science. The award is presented by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and goes to Needleman for his exceptional work in publicizing the issue of lead poisoning. - Center for Science in the Public Interest

June 2001 - Needleman, in conjunction with UPMC Health Systems and the Homewood Healthy Homes Collaborative, kicks off a campaign to install "aluminum siding over a frame house coated with lead-based paint" in the Homewood area of Pittsburgh. This work will remove or at least cover lead that has proven to be hazardous in many historic Homewood homes where Needleman dealt with his first case of severe lead poisoning in children. - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

May 2000 - Needleman leads the way with new research which "estimates that 11 to 38 percent of the nation's delinquency is attributable to high lead exposure." This new assertion comes after years of research that including testing for lead exposure, looking for behavioral problems, and then retesting participants as they got older. - The Washington Post

January 1998 - Needleman authors Childhood Lead Poisoning: The Promise and Abandonment of Primary Prevention, which discusses several of his research based conclusions on lead toxicity and prevention.

January 1997 - Needleman receives the Vernon Houk Award from the Society for Occupational and Environmental Health. The award is granted to individuals, like Needleman, who play a "vital leadership role in advancing national policy to prevent childhood lead poisoning." - Society for Occupational and Environmental Health.

Herbert Needleman